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Côte d’Ivoire: With their reconciliation, what are Ouattara, Gbagbo and Bédié trying to achieve?

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Monday, 16 August 2021 19:05

Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara on 27 July. CYRILLE BAH/Anadolu Agency via AFP

They had parted ways on 25 November 2010, after their debate that had taken place in between the two rounds of the presidential election. Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo never saw each other again, as they were separated by mutual hatred that plunged their country into chaos and made them take two radically different paths.

Ouattara ended up with the republic’s power and gold, while Gbagbo spent time in a Scheveningen prison and had a lengthy trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Gbagbo, who was later acquitted of the war crimes and crimes against humanity that he was accused of committing during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis, returned to Abidjan in mid-June this year. Many Ivorians have been looking forward to the reunion between the two leaders, hoping that it will symbolically turn the page on their violent rivalry. So, on 27 July, when the former prisoner got out of his car, walked on the red carpet in the palace and embraced his successor, the image was considered historic.

Aware that their every move was being closely scrutinised, the two tough politicians made sure to shower one another with praise and attention. Ouattara addressed Gbagbo as “my friend” and “my dear Laurent”, while the latter called him “Mr. President”, thereby acknowledging, in passing, a status that he had – until then – always denied. These actions were enough to make spectators ask themselves if they were dreaming.

“We can forgive ourselves”

As overplayed as it was, the meeting between the two rivals marks a turning point in the national reconciliation process, which never really started. Since his return to the shores of the Ebrié Lagoon, Gbagbo – although on the offensive – has presented himself as a wise, old man who has returned having embraced a spirit of peace and concord.

Ouattara, on the other hand, is concerned about the image he will leave behind. The head of state, who has been criticised ever since he was re-elected to a third term at the end of 2020 as he had pledged to leave power, wants to go down in history as the person who reconciled the country and allowed a new generation to emerge. “He has a real desire to find ways of appeasement and since he is the president, he knows perfectly well that he will be called to account in the end,” said someone close to him.

If he really wants national reconciliation, he can accomplish it. He is the president, so he has all the state’s means at his disposal.

Before meeting with Gbagbo, Ouattara had also renewed contact with Henri Konan Bédié – his other main opponent. The two men have gradually grown closer ever since their standoff during the latest presidential election, during which a police blockade was set up around Bédié’s Abidjan residence and several of his close associates were arrested. They met again at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan in mid-November and since then, have been speaking occasionally over the phone.

Bédié, Ouattara and Gbagbo are three tutelary figures who, despite their advanced age (87, 79, 76), continue to dominate Ivorian political life, as they have occupied leading roles for a quarter of a century. Bédié and Ouattara remain the indispensable bosses of their respective parties: the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP) while Gbagbo, who chose to leave the shell of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) to Pascal Affi N’Guessan on 9 August, is determined to launch a new formation to unite Ivorians.

Ever since the turbulent re-election of Ouattara, who, as head of state, has managed to impose himself on everyone, the three leaders and their lieutenants have said the time has come to meet, talk and reconcile in order to put an end to the repeated crises that have plagued their country.

“We can’t just draw a line under everything that has happened, but we can forgive each other and reach out to one another. Everything that moves in the direction of dialogue and national reconciliation is positive,” said Noël Akossi-Bendjo, former mayor of the Plateau commune and PDCI figure, who returned to Abidjan on 3 July after three years in exile due to legal problems.

Reconciliation must be done with truth. Only the truth will bring justice. As long as this is not done, feelings of resentment will continue to persist.

In foreign chancelleries, where caution is still the order of the day, this phase of relaxation is rather well perceived. “It doesn’t matter if it’s posturing or if they have ulterior motives. The simple fact that Ouattara, Gbagbo and Bédié are meeting and talking to each other is already helping to calm the situation,” said a diplomat based in Abidjan.

Despite these reassuring signs and the beautiful pictures of handshakes on the front pages of newspapers, no one really seems to believe that the three ‘old’ men are being sincere. Ivorians know perfectly well that none of the three leaders has a tendency to be gentle; far from it.

“Ouattara, Gbagbo and Bédié have no illusions about each other’s good faith, but the only way out is to appease them. They are getting on […] and they all want to go out the front door,” said one of the president’s confidants.

All the more so since each camp’s next generation is becoming more and more insistent. In fact, some ‘young’ wolves (meaning at least 40 years old…) of the RHDP, FPI and PDCI make no effort to hide their frustration about their elders’ eternal three-way match. “We need to move forward, and therefore they must settle their old disputes,” says one of the PDCI’s leaders.

Peace of the Braves?

15 days before his encounter with Ouattara, Gbagbo began his grand duke tour by meeting with Bédié on his Daoukro stronghold. There again, their reunion was highly symbolic as it served as a means to thank Bédié, who had visited Gbagbo in Brussels in July 2019, a few months after the ICC released him on parole.

Accompanied by their wives Henriette Konan Bédié and Nady Bamba, the two former presidents spent the weekend together, surrounded by their staff. The leader of the PDCI and founder of the FPI spent 48 hours in each other’s company, during which they ate dinner, spent the night then visited the rubber plantations of the ‘Sphinx’, all the while exchanging smiles and getting to know each other better. While they did in fact reiterate their opposition to Ouattara, they also agreed that an ‘inclusive national dialogue’ should be implemented.

They say they want reconciliation, but they should start by pledging respect for freedom and democracy.

“Their alliance is first and foremost made in a spirit of decree and reconciliation,” said Justin Koné Katinan, a former minister and Gbagbo’s spokesman. “For the moment, there is no political ulterior motive.”

How is it possible that these two political animals, both of whom reached the height of power before being brutally ousted, haven’t thought about seeking revenge against their common rival? “They certainly believe that it is important to calm the situation. However, their real objective, in the long run, is to take power from Ouattara,” says a member of Gbagbo’s inner circle.

Behind the scenes of this Peace of the Braves, a new – perhaps final – game of liar’s poker is taking shape. On the table is the last possible combination that has formed over a 20-plus-year-game of shifting alliances, which is Gbagbo and Bédié against Ouattara. This has caused frustration amongst some of their compatriots, who are tired of alliances that are constantly changing based on circumstances.

“Some people are moved by this, but this kind of manoeuvre is common in countries where there are three major political poles. There is nothing extraordinary about it,” says a member of the FPI, who concludes his remarks by quoting one of Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s favorite sayings: “Politics is about appreciating the realities of the moment.”

After a long history of hating one another, Bédié and Gbagbo have grown closer thanks to their common dislike of Ouattara. In June 2020, five months before the presidential election, their two parties signed a ‘collaboration agreement’.

Despite holding different views on how to deal with Ouattara’s re-election, the two oppositionists continued to cooperate. During the March legislative elections, the PDCI and FPI presented joint lists in most of the country’s 205 constituencies, which resulted in 65 PDCI parliamentary members and 17 for the FPI. Since then, their two parliamentary groups have said they want to continue to “work together” against the presidential majority.

A “fool’s alliance”

How far will this alliance go? No one knows, even though its protagonists say that they want it to last as long as possible. Both camps are trying to ensure that it goes beyond its leaders.

“We have differences, but we share ideals, starting with restoring democracy and the rule of law in Côte d’Ivoire,” said a PDCI official. “Our shared determination to fight against the violation of the Constitution and the common experience of repression has created solidarity between our militant bases.”

The two parties also intend to collaborate in the short term on more concrete issues such as revising the electoral code and composing the Commission Electorale Indépendante (CEI). In their sights are the next municipal and regional elections, which are due to be held in 2023. Both the pro-Bedié and pro-Gbagbo parties feel that this is a simple calculation based on the rule of three thirds.

“We have three largely dominant political forces in Côte d’Ivoire. If two of them join forces against the third, they will logically win,” says a person close to Gbagbo. Their opponents in the RHDP do not believe in this theory and are thus not worried about the alliance that their main opponents have formed, which Adama Bictogo, the party’s executive director, has described as a “fool’s alliance”.

These issues need to be addressed in a profound way, otherwise they will resurface in the future.

“Before they even think about beating us, they should get their own ranks in order,” said a senior minister. Since his return, Gbagbo has indeed launched a divorce procedure, literally and figuratively, with his ex-wife Simone Gbagbo, who remains a founding and still influential figure of the FPI.

The case of Pascal Affi N’Guessan, to whom the former head of state has decided to leave the party and create a new formation, seems equally sensitive. As for Bédié, several PDCI leaders have still not forgiven him for losing the last presidential election and believe that the time has come for him to hand over the reins.

Ouattara, master of clocks

For his part, Ouattara, as head of state, remains in control and he has no intention of rushing, let alone giving the impression of responding to the tempo dictated by his opponents. The president, who was re-elected to a third 5-year term and holds a majority in the National Assembly, faces many challenges including economic recovery, the health situation and the jihadist threat.

His inner circle has also reminded him that he has many other issues to manage in addition to national reconciliation. Attempting to do too much is out of the question, as it risks giving the impression that Côte d’Ivoire is in a perilous situation. Therefore, organising a major national dialogue or appointing an inclusive government are not on the agenda.

“If he really wants national reconciliation, he can accomplish it. He is the president so [he] has all the state’s means at his disposal. There is nothing to prevent him from making a significant speech or taking strong actions that would really move things forward,” said Hubert Oulaye, a member of parliament and former Gbagbo minister.

“They say they want reconciliation, but they should start by pledging respect for freedom and democracy,” said a PDCI member. During his meeting with Ouattara at the palace, Gbagbo insisted that some 100 political prisoners still in detention be released.

In response, Ouattara announced – on 7 August, the national holiday – that 69 people who had been detained following the events of the October 2020 presidential election would be provisionally released and put under judicial supervision.

But what about the victims of the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis? 10 years after the fact, their families and loved ones are still angry about the lack of justice that has been delivered, despite the many crimes committed. “3,000 dead and no one guilty,” we often hear people say in Côte d’Ivoire.

The ICC has not yet finished with the Ivorian cases despite Gbagbo’s final acquittal and lifting the arrest warrant issued against his ex-wife, Simone.

In some homes, Gbagbo’s return – with great fanfare – and more recently his warm embrace with Ouattara, have not gone down well. “These issues need to be addressed in a profound way, otherwise they will resurface in the future. Reconciliation must be done with truth. Only the truth will bring justice. As long as this is not done, feelings of resentment will continue to persist,” said a member of the FPI.

In mid-July, the Commission Dialogue Vérité et Réconciliation (CDVR), which was established after the post-election crisis, released its main conclusions and recommendations regarding the national reconciliation process. Will this result in legal proceedings? Some hope so.

Meanwhile, the ICC has not yet finished with the Ivorian cases despite Gbagbo’s final acquittal and lifting the arrest warrant issued against his ex-wife, Simone. In recent weeks, the prosecutor’s office has dispatched missions to Abidjan to continue its field investigations. It remains to be seen what – and more importantly, who – the missions will lead to.

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